Johnette Napolitano at the Spiegeltent: night 3

johnette napolitano at melbourne's spiegeltent

Johnette Napolitano during her Night 3 performance at the Spiegeltent. Picture: Kirstyn McDermott

The final night of Johnette Napolitano’s stint at the Spiegeltent in Melbourne, and as with the previous two nights, it was an outstanding hour.

Napolitano, in her top hat and be-ribboned home-made dress worn over trousers, had anecdotes aplenty, starting with a ‘frog on a log’ song she wrote at age 12 — her first — to entertain a sick sister. Marc Moreland (of Wall of Voodoo, and Napolitano collaboration Pretty & Twisted with Danny Montgomery; he died in March 10 years ago) and ‘Joey’ featured. A superbly delivered poem from her Rough Mix book that had her harking back to the Rat Pack and the Hollywood of her youth. Those interjections within songs: priceless.

The Spiegeltent encourages that lounge room conversation atmosphere and this was a very comfortable house party indeed.

I’ve not heard versions of ‘Joey’ and ‘Tomorrow, Wendy’ (by Wall of Voodoo’s Andy Prieboy) more impressive than tonight’s renditions. Quite remarkable, given the guitarist has fractures in both hands.

Again, though the songs were much the same as previously, the order was changed around and each was given its own treatment. Finale ‘Bloodletting’ was more comical — Napolitano has a wonderfully expressive face; ‘I Don’t Need a Hero’ rang heavy with emotion — I suspect there were ghosts in the house, haunting those lyrics, as one might expect from a gig with an autobiographical intention.

Johnette Napolitano 2002 interview

The audience, as last night, provided the rhythm section for ‘Roses Grow’, and how Napolitano can hold a note… I can’t even hold my breath that long, and she’s got a good 10 years on me. The sell-out crowd again got to put their hands together to bolster the encore, a cappella ‘Mercedes Benz’.

Other songs included ‘Don’t Take Me Down’ with Napolitano on piano — man, it ripped — ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, ‘the Wedding Theme from Candy‘, ‘Rosalie‘, ‘New Orleans Ain’t the Same’ (so gorgeous, a favourite for this French Quarter tragic) and “Take Me Home/Rehab’.

On Thursday night we had the rain, and last night there was a woman in the audience, apparently on her way to a party, dressed as Marilyn Monroe, which was the perfect window dressing for ‘Roses Grow’ (which references the actor). No such ‘extras’ tonight*, just honest, at times affectingly raw, music, that drew a standing ovation.

I hope her hands heal soon, that she continues to make wonderful music and lets us experience it in person like this. I saw Concrete Blonde twice on 2010’s Bloodletting tour (Melbourne and Brisbane) and they totally tore it up, but this series was something else again. Bravo; fucking bravo!


johnette napolitano at the spiegeltent

Pic: K McD


* Addendum: There was an inopportune low-flying helicopter that leant itself to a joke about being on the run, like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas was it, that totally cracked Napolitano up.

Johnette Napolitano at the Spiegeltent: night 2

johnette napolitano at the spiegeltent, night 3

Johnette Napolitano on the third night of her Melbourne Spiegeltent run. Picture: Kirstyn McDermott

After breaking the ice last night, Johnette Napolitano presented a more relaxed figure at her Spiegeltent gig in Melbourne tonight. Still humbled by the full house, but a little stumble-fingers too, stalling two songs — ‘how do you fuck up ‘Joey’?, she asked at one stage with an endearing chuckle — and tumbling her wine glass.

Thing is, when you’re personable and natural, you can get away with the odd fumble. It’s refreshing to be reminded that not everyone has to be polished and Photoshopped to the sheen of ceramic in order to entertain. Cracks are allowed. Crack-ups are divine; Napolitano’s humour won through. ‘I’m a mess,’ she said; ‘thanks for your patience’. Pshaw. When you can bring tears to the eyes with a rendition of ‘New Orleans Ain’t the Same (Since You’ve Been Gone)’, you get all the patience you need.

The set list was tweaked from the previous, again opening with ‘Rosalie’, and finishing early with the a cappella ‘Mercedes Benz’ before an encore of ‘Roses Grow’ to the accompaniment of audience percussion, ‘(You’re the Only One) Can Make Me Cry’ and the finale, ‘Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)’.

Napolitano, in hat and ankle-length sleeveless black dress, was in good spirits, wisecracking, rendering slightly different takes on some songs, making each one fresh within its moment. The set list also included ‘Tomorrow, Wendy’, ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, ‘(You’re the Only One) Can Make Me Cry’ with a snatch of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’, ‘Don’t Take Me Down’ on the piano and ‘the wedding theme from Candy‘.

There were anecdotes of Wall of Voodoo’s Marc Moreland and Melbourne (the inspiration for the hit ‘Joey’), of overflowing bath tubs and nanna naps, references to being old belied by a voice that took us far, far away from the canvas and mirrors of the elegant Spiegeltent. Great sound, too.

Napolitano is donating all proceeds of merch sales to the Lost Dogs Home, with one more night to run in her three-night appearance.

  • Night 3 review
  • Johnette Napolitano at the Spiegeltent: night 1

    johnette napolitano at the melbourne spiegeltent

    Night 3 performance. Pic: Kirstyn McDermott

    Please, memory gods, don’t let this one fade: Johnette Napolitano, bathed in blue lights, bare arms showing muscle and tattoos, sleeveless red-and-black gothic dress over black trousers, black hair curling freely around her face, funky top hat with shiny pins; there’s rain on the canvas roof of the Spiegeltent and the leadlight windows are aglow from without; she’s singing to the accompaniment of only her guitar, strumming a low stalking beat, her voice infused with a blues note — ‘going all Louis Armstrong on your arse’, as she says in a breathy undertone with a hint of chuckle — and the song is ‘Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)’, and it encapsulates everything, absolutely everything I’ve come here for.

    Oh yes, I’m a fan, and last night — the first of a three-gig run — was a demonstration of why. That face, lined and shadowed with a life at the lower end of the rock biz, an uncompromising life, that voice that carries so much emotion; and then that cheeky peek from under the hat’s brim, the eyes alight and round with amusement and wonder, and she could be 20, or 12.

    I love her shyness, her humility, her quirkiness, her freedom to make mistakes and to interrupt her songs to interject a comment or a laugh. I love the way she plays her way into a song and then — oh — she’s in it, and it’s real, rasping low notes that make you shiver, those highs that make you tremble. She looks, sounds and acts real — ‘I like … my stories true,’ she says at one stage, quoting a passage from her Rough Mix chap book, a smattering of autobiography and lyrics and behind-the-scenes that’s only crime is being too short.


    Last night’s gig opened with the recent Concrete Blonde release ‘Rosalie’, thrilled with ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, then sent a frisson with a spectacular version of ‘Mexican Moon’ — some flamenco notes, some Spanish, all heartfelt.

    She sang a song about a frog on a log that she wrote when she was 12 — pretty good little ditty, that — and the wedding song from the Aussie movie Candy, the first time she’d performed it, she said (‘I was shitting myself up here; I’m still shitting myself’).

    It was a freestyle playlist, snippets of tunes here and there including a grab of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ , anecdotes, requests, stretching back across her bands (primarily Concrete Blonde, her most successful venture) and solo work.

    The Pretty & Twisted tune ‘Don’t Take Me Down’ was stunning on the piano. There was a strong showing from the Bloodletting album, in addition to the titular song: ‘Joey’, Concrete Blonde’s big hit, and ‘Tomorrow, Wendy’, the Marc Moreland song that Johnette virtually owns due to her stirring renditions over the years, and a strident ‘I Don’t Need A Hero’. Her wonderful solo album Scarred was represented by ‘Just Like Time’. The gig ended with an a cappella rendition of ‘Mercedes Benz’, completing an earlier impression of a Joplin-like presence.

    Lord knows what I’ve missed. An hour was too short but deliciously long. She has two other gigs at the elegant, intimate Spiegeltent, an ideal venue for an acoustic performance from a genuine, and genuinely talented, performer.


  • Night 2 review
  • Night 3 review
  • Note: I’ve replaced an old PR shot of Johnette used in the original post with one taken on the third night after the audience was given permission to take photos for a period.

    Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra at Northcote: a grand finale

    amanda palmer and grand theft orchestra posterThe Northcote Social Club was packed on Monday night for the last of five gigs by Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra, and what a sweaty little box that venue is. But the sound was on the money and if elbows in the chest and a stage seen past bobbing heads counts as intimate, then this was it.

    The purpose of the band’s string of low-brow gigs was to road test material for an album, which begins recording in Melbourne this week. Today, in fact. And it promises to be a most enjoyable record indeed.

    Palmer has assembled three multi-instrumentalists (Jherek Bischoff – mostly bass, Michael McQuilken – mostly drums, Chad Raines – mostly guitars and synthesiser, and trumpet and vox too), who share a joyous rapport on stage. It’s great to see a collective of musos enjoying themselves, playing for the fun, interacting, teasing and laughing. A Palmer gig is often a rambunctious affair, and this was no exception. There was even birthday cake for the mostly drummer, and a ukulele present that was broken in immediately. Kudos!

    The new material, mostly upbeat and groovy, shows an expansion of style leaning on an ’80s sensibility — and synthesiser — in addition to more typical staccato Palmer delivery. There was some gorgeous phrasing, excellent harmony work, exquisite changes of mood and tempo. There was a ‘My Sharona’ lift, traces of Siouxsie Sioux and Martha Davis and, if the crowd is to be believed, The Cars, though I wasn’t quite convinced on that score. Happy beats and sombre ballads. And a big blast of brass.

    Monday night’s finale — sadly, the train timetable meant we had to eschew the encore — included an appearance by near-nekkid performance artists, an opening slot filled with so much aplomb by Die Roten Punkte (so versatile, this duo, playing punk, pop, silly ditties and Krautrock — catch them at the Spiegeltent!) and a superb vocal guest spot by Bauhaus’s David J (who DJs at Cabaret Nocturne on Friday).


    Sisters of Mercy cornered in Melbourne

    They weren’t, of course. I spied just the one fan hovering by the stage exit, and he was fended off by the driver, and then waved off through the glass, clutching his LP as the English trio piled into their escape vehicle.

    Inside Melbourne’s packed and venerable shed, The Corner, there were two, perhaps three people wearing white. One was Andrew Eldritch, lead singer and founder and main man of the Sisters of Mercy. Through the constant fog, the bald, sunglassed figure looked astronautical at times; sadly, the image was belied by the reality of the terry towling hoodie. This was rock ‘n’ roll in gym chic. This was NOT GOTH, okay?

    The crowd was, largely, so corseted and coiffed, a delight to behold, the goths and the rockabillies and the rock hounds, the veteran fans and the newest generation flocking to see the UK legends roll out 90 minutes of classic not-goth rock. Hm, perhaps best not to write songs such as ‘Lucretia My Reflection’ — an absolute winner tonight, holding up one of the two encores — if you don’t want the children of the night to bulk out your fan base.

    Kyla Ward reports from the front line!

    Points to Eldritch, his wonderful guitarist and so-active bassist: they changed the set list from last week’s Auckland gig, even whacking the instrumental into the second encore. The hits were still there, of course: ‘More’, ‘Detonation Boulevard’, ‘Vision Thing’, ‘This Corrosion’, ‘Dominion/Mother Russia’, ‘Alice’, the closing ‘Temple of Love’, and others. Unknowns were there, too, moreso thank in NZ if feeble memory serves, allowing the chitter-chatter to rise. My advice, should you be so inclined as to attend this Thursday’s gig, is to get up close, where you can peer through the fog and catch some of the action, and perhaps lip read the lyrics you know so well. Because from the back, Eldritch was largely unintelligible save for those occasional lupine howls, those particularly enunciated choruses.

    He was, however, compared to the Auckland outing, verily loquacious, even addressing a couple up the front, and exhorting attendance on Thursday for the band’s second and last sideshow outside the Soundwave festival.

    Kudos to the Corner bar staff; have I ever been so quickly, efficiently and politely served at any live venue before?

    All of which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy tonight’s gig. The Sisters are formative to me, comfort and mood music, and to hear them play, even in this thoroughly competent and enjoyable incarnation, is a delight. I like Eldritch’s onstage super-cool persona, I love the lights strobing out from the mist, I love the beats and the songs of decay and loss and displacement, the cynicism and world-weariness and the headbanging riffs. It’s rock ‘n’ roll to be lost in and taken away by and moved by. But yes, perhaps, live, best appreciated from up the front.


    The Courier’s New Bicycle delivers a worthy message

    This is the fourth book I’m reading as part of my list of 10 for the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge

    AWWNYRC#4: The Courier’s New Bicycle

    By Kim Westwood
    HarperVoyager, 2011, ISBN: 978 0 7322 8988 1

    couriers new bicycle by kim westwood

    WHAT a fascinating picture Kim Westwood paints of dystopian Melbourne, right from the striking Darren Holt-designed cover. Australia has been ravaged by a flu vaccination gone wrong – I can hear the shouts of told you so from the anti-vac lobby from here – with the result that fertility levels have fallen through the floor. The religious right has ascended to an almost Orwellian command of the government and the streets, patrolling morality with a puritanical fervour that would make the Rev Nile dance the snoopy dance. Hormones are a hot property in a society where reproduction is a struggle.

    Our journey into this well-rendered terrain is through the eyes of Salisbury Forth, a bicycle courier whose life has been characterised by a fight for acceptance of her transgender status. She identifies as androgynous, meaning even her family shun her. Sal (the story is told in first person, so eliminating annoying pronoun conflicts) found a measure of freedom inside the underground community of the inner city, ‘pedalling’ hormone and liberating factory animals; it’s only a matter of time, of course, till the wheels come off.

    Intrigue on an almost cyberpunk level ensues as bad drugs are sold, corporate interests clash, desires stoke the belief that the ends justify the means.
    Issues of sexuality and identity, and the prejudice levelled against the perceived ‘other’ by the ‘moral majority’, are key issues, and Westwood puts us firmly in the saddle.

    The story is narratively more straightforward and the prose more accessible than in her previous, debut title, The Daughters of Moab, a post-apocayptic Australian tale which likewise evoked a most believable world.

    australian women writers challenge 2012It’s refreshing that in CNB there are no action heroes; while the world dips into science fiction concepts rooted firmly in the here and now – glow-in-the-dark pets, anyone? say no to battery farming? – the characters are uniformly of the average human variety. They get tired, they make mistakes, they hurt.

    There were two minor speed bumps in my reading of the novel, and both probably reflect more on my reading habits than Westwood’s skill and style.

    the first was a preponderance of info dumps filling in details about the back story, particularly early on as the stage was being set. There’s a certain level that fits the noir tradition that this story draws on so well, but there’s also a limit to just how much is needed at any one time without interfering with the story, or indeed, interrupting conversations.

    The second, equally minor, annoyance was the Salisbury ‘voice’. For a young person who left home at 16, has limited formal education and lives an unsettled life, Sal’s vocabulary is extraordinarily wide and her knowledge of art likewise remarkable. Unfairly assumptive and prejudicial? Perhaps.

    These quibbles can’t diminish the impact of Westwood’s world and the gender and social issues she explores. Atmospheric, considered, with likeable characters in a fascinating world: bravo.

    Previous Challenge reviews:

  • The Road, by Catherine Jinks, horror.
  • The Shattered City, by Tansy Rayner Roberts, fantasy.
  • Frantic, by Katherine Howell, crime.
  • Roger Waters’ The Wall: quite the spectacle

    Looking back at last night’s opening performance of the four-night run at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena of The Wall, the stadium spectacular led by Pink Floyd great Roger Waters: what a triumph for staging.

    Drawing heavily from both previous Floyd gigs and the movie of The Wall, there’s an aeroplane and an inflatable pig, giant marionettes, fireworks and gunfire; a performance stage that extrudes from the main stage and a living room that extends from a wall. There’s the trademark Pink Floyd circular screen above the stage, though the high tiers probably didn’t see much of it past the massive speaker stacks suspended from the ceiling. Fortunately, it was only really in play during the first half. And of course, there’s the wall itself: an extremely clever edifice stretching the width of the arena, constructed to full height — between 20 and 30 feet, I’d guess — during the first half, and then forming a backdrop during the second, until its eventual demise — almost an anticlimax, coming quite suddenly, as it does on the album, at the end of The Trial.

    The wall, in all its stages of construction, acts as a massive screen for various film clips — some from the movie The Wall, most successfully perhaps the marching hammers — and effects, even a projection of various walls on the wall. A subway train is brilliantly detailed.

    For ‘Hey You’, the opening song of the first half, there is only the wall: a gutsy bit of performance to have an entire song sung with no one on stage and fairly minimalist projections as well.

    For ‘Comfortably Numb’, a real crowd favourite, Waters is alone in front of the wall, with a second singer doing some of the heavy vocal lifting from the top; he doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do, Roger, standing out from his black-suited compatriots due to his white trainers for the duration of that tune. He came across as a man in need of a guitar. Which he gets, on and off, and very nice it is, too.

    flowers from pink floyd movie The Wall

    For ‘Mother’, Roger sang to the backdrop of himself singing the song during the original Wall tour some 30 years ago. The voice doesn’t quite make some of those notes, but The Wall is theatrical enough to allow some licence. I do wonder how the mum sitting in the next row is going to explain that tune to her whippersnapper son; that or the big-screen naked boobs and crotch grabbing of ‘Young Lust’; the animation of fornicating plants might’ve gone over the young’un’s head this time around.

    It really is a hell of a production, but the politics are a little dodgy. Trying to update the work, essentially a nightmarish autobiography about a wretched childhood, a dead solider father and the high cost of fame, into a plea for world peace feels like a stretch at times. Still, great art work; massive heart. ‘Bring the Boys Back Home’, indeed, but let’s not oversimplify here. There was at least one casualty of 9/11 on the memorial wall screened during intermission; the solutions aren’t as simple as we might like.

    Still, I love the way that religions, warmongers and multicorporates are lumped into the same basket of Bad (a real game of pick your fascist!), although given I’ve just paid a hundred bucks to see it, there might be a degree of irony going begging there as Shell, Mercedes and McDonalds logos rain down amid dollar signs like 1000-pound bombs from hoopy Stratofortresses.

    Highlights? Well, the album brims with them, but seeing the school kids on stage wagging their fingers at the giant school master is pretty cool; ‘Run Like Hell’ lifts the pace wonderfully. The sound is superb and the band and backing singers first-rate. Definitely worth a gander if you’re lacking a little rock opera in your diet. Hell, you might even leave with a sudden urge to donate to a famine-relief charity or buy a poppy on Anzac Day. Assuming you don’t already.

    No support act, two halves of about an hour each, plus 20-minute intermission.

    Meanwhile, here’s one of my favourite songs from the album, ‘Comfortably Numb’, and a spine-tingling moment of reconciliation when Dave Gilmour joined Waters in London to play it. Tear down the wall!